Wearable Technology May Boost Wellness, but Be Careful

By Dave Zielinski June 5, 2018
Wearable Technology May Boost Wellness, but Be Careful

​As new technology for wearable devices emerges, organizations are finding uses for these tools in corporate wellness programs that go far beyond counting employee steps. Artificial intelligence (AI), sophisticated sensors and ultrasonic tracking are now part of devices worn on wrists or apps on smartphones that can track everything from blood glucose levels to heart arrhythmias to the nuanced hand movements people use when eating or drinking.

But as the use of wearables for wellness expands, legal concerns also grow regarding employee privacy issues and how the data generated by wearables will be used and kept secure.

Companies invest in wearables with the belief they'll help improve workforce productivity, cut absenteeism and reduce health care costs. Data show the use of many wearables in wellness programs continues to grow. Research and advisory firm Gartner estimates that by 2021, 90 percent of wellness programs will include some type of fitness tracker, an increase from 60 percent in 2017. A study from ABI Research projects that 44 million new wearable devices will be used in wellness programs around the world in the next three years.

Two developments are fueling increased adoption and innovation in wearables for wellness, experts say:

  • More insurance companies are beginning to reimburse the costs of wearable health care solutions.
  • A new software precertification pilot program from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is helping to get new digital health care solutions approved quicker, according to a 2018 study from Gartner on wearables in health care ecosystems. This has incented more medical device and technology companies to undertake research and clinical trials designed to develop new forms of wearables.

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Wearables Branch Out

Advancing technology has pushed the use of wearables into new areas of corporate wellness and beyond. Amazon, for example, recently received approval of two patents for wristbands designed for use by employees in its warehouses to improve inventory management. The wristbands track the location of products as well as guide employees in tasks, with the ability to do things like vibrate if someone is about to place a package in the wrong area.

Another example of innovation comes from Klue, a software company in San Mateo, Calif., that recently released two AI-driven products designed to help employees monitor and adjust eating and drinking behaviors.

The products use sensors embedded in devices like the Apple Watch to detect subtle hand movements, said Katelijn Vleugels, Klue's co-founder and CEO. Rather than relying on nutritional knowledge or best practices to drive behavior change, the tools deliver "micro-nudges" to users in real time. The sensors can monitor when, how fast and how much someone is eating, Vleugels said.

"Motion sensors capture the data and translate it into actionable, in-the-moment advice to help people change consumption behaviors," she said. "We all know how hard it is to change ingrained behaviors. We think it's easier to do when you have a cue or nudge right as a behavior is happening."

Garmin International is another wearables manufacturer engaged in innovation. The company is partnering with the University of Kansas Medical Center on new research to develop algorithms capable of identifying conditions like sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation. Wearables equipped with optical sensors have the potential to help detect those conditions, said Travis Johnson, worldwide product lead for Garmin.

"Both sleep apnea and heart arrhythmia are underreported conditions medically, and many employees don't know they have them until it's too late," Johnson said. Garmin's research is looking at creating wearables to aid in the initial phases of detection of these conditions. For example, the collection of sleep data over a one- to two-week period with a wearable could determine if someone requires a more extensive overnight sleep center evaluation, he said.

Legal Considerations

As more wearables are used as part of wellness programs, companies need to be acutely aware of legal issues, experts say. Depending on the type of information tracked and gathered, use of such devices not only can trigger employee privacy concerns but also can constitute an improper "medical examination" under the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Jana Baker, an attorney and co-chair of the health care practice group at law firm Ogletree Deakins in Dallas.

"There's also the risk that the information gathered may reveal an otherwise undisclosed health condition or disability, which places knowledge of that condition in the hands of the employer," Baker said. "You want to ensure that only a limited group of people have access to the information generated from wearables, that there are policies protecting the information as private and confidential, and that the data is never shared with supervisors or individuals making or influencing employment decisions."

Jason Habinsky, a partner and employment law specialist with law firm Haynes and Boone in New York City, said companies should use policies and detailed consent and disclosure forms that identify the information being gathered from wearables and how it will be used.

"Policies are critically important, particularly to prevent employees from claiming they didn't consent to the use of a wearable technology," Habinsky said. "Policy should make it clear that use of the device is voluntary and consensual, with employees acknowledging that in writing. A policy also should delineate the parameters of what the employer is doing with the wearables, why they are doing it and what they plan to do with the information gathered."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.


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